Cristofori’s Dream

Musical instruments have been around for thousands of years, and it is not easy to pinpoint the person who first created the earlier versions. Over the centuries, many respected musicians became makers of instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731), who lived in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries. Whilst making violins and other stringed instruments was a valued career, Cristofori dreamt of inventing something new: a piano.

Other than the information on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s birth certificate that states he was born on 4th May 1655 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, his early life remains a mystery. One story suggests Cristofori served as an apprentice to Nicola Amati (1596-1684), a stringed-instrument maker from Cremona, but census records do not correspond. In 1680, the census recorded that a thirteen-year-old with the name Christofaro Bartolomei lived with Amati, but by this time, the future piano maker had celebrated his 25th birthday.

The first record of Cristofori as an adult is dated 1688 when Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) recruited the 33-year-old. The purpose of this recruitment is unknown, but it coincided with the death of the prince’s musical technician. Ferdinando owned plenty of instruments and was a lover and patron of music.

Some historians question why Ferdinando, who lived in Venice where many musical technicians lived, sought out Cristofori who lived outside of the city. Perhaps Cristofori had already started inventing instruments, which would explain why Ferdinando offered him time and money to pursue his interests as part of the bargain. As well as having a fondness for music, Ferdinando expressed a fascination with machinery and owned over forty mechanical clocks.

In an interview with the Italian writer Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), Cristofori admitted he had not wanted to work for the prince, but on hearing this, Ferdinando responded “that he would make me want to.” Cristofori reluctantly agreed to a salary of 12 scudi per month (€288) and moved into a house in Venice that also came with the position.

Cristofori’s job involved transporting and refurbishing the prince’s instruments. Although this was well within Cristofori’s abilities, he found it challenging to work with the other hundred artisans employed by the prince. Cristofori either worked in or near the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi, revealing during his interview with Maffei: “It was hard for me to have to go into the big room with all that noise.” Eventually, Ferdinando gave Cristofori a private workshop.

Although Cristofori takes credit for the invention of the piano, keyboard instruments were already in existence. The harpsichord, for instance, was invented during the middle ages and a smaller version, known as a spinet, was developed before Cristofori was born. Yet, Cristofori was determined to improve upon these early instruments.

Not long after starting his employment, Cristofori invented a new instrument for Prince Ferdinando. Known as a spinettone (“big spinet”), it was longer than a spinet but thinner than a harpsichord, yet its mechanisms made it different from either instrument.

Spinets and harpsichords are designated as eight-foot pitch (8′) instruments, meaning they played at a standard, ordinary pitch. Cristofori’s spinettone contained 8′ strings, but he also included 4′ strings, which allowed the musician to play one octave above the standard. Attached to an internal mechanism the keyboard could be slid back and forth by the player to switch between the two octaves.

The unique design attested to the ingenuity of its inventor; not only was it unlike anything produced before, but it also required careful thought and precision. Cristofori likely engineered the spinettone to complement his patron’s love of opera. Prince Ferdinando often played the harpsichord with the orchestra at the Medici villa at Pratolino, but due to the instrument’s size, the orchestra pit was very cramped. The spinettone was physically compact, making it the perfect size for playing with the orchestra. Its range of notes also complemented the other instruments.

Another invention by Cristofori, which may predate the spinettone, was the oval spinet, based on the keyboard and string arrangements of a virginal. A virginal is a smaller, usually rectangular, version of a harpsichord with a richer, flute-like tone. Cristofori altered the string lengths to make them stronger and designed an oval body to make the instrument more compact.

Some historians believe the oval spinet was Cristofori’s first attempt at making a keyboard instrument suitable for use within an orchestra, but its lack of range made it impractical. Nonetheless, it was considered a luxury instrument that only the wealthy could afford. Musical instrument scholar Stewart Pollens (b.1949) describes the oval spinet as “a tour de force of mechanical design, fully the product of Cristofori’s inventive character,” yet, it never caught on during Cristofori’s lifetime. Only two of Cristofori’s original oval spinets remain, but there are several by later manufacturers.

An inventory of the prince’s possessions, taken in 1700, lists the oval spinet and spinettone. Also documented are two harpsichords made by Cristofori, one made from ebony; and a clavicytherium. The latter was a form of upright harpsichord designed in the 15th century purposely to save floor space. Less prevalent than the traditional harpsichord, the clavicytherium was harder to play and had “a fairly heavy touch and unresponsive action” (Ripin, 1989). Unlike the harpsichord, which relied on gravity to move the jack or plectrum, the clavicytherium needed a spring to assist the movement.

An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…” The inventory contains a paragraph about an instrument invented by Cristofori called an Arpicembalo. Meaning “harp-harpsichord”, this was the name of Cristofori’s first piano, which eventually became known as pianoforte, meaning soft and loud.

The Arpicembalo remained publicly unknown until Scipione Maffei mentioned the instrument in an article in 1711. By this time, Cristofori had built two more pianos. Unlike harpsichords, whose strings are plucked by a plectrum, Cristofori devised a mechanism using hammers. It was not as simple as replacing the plectrums with hammers, but they also needed to return to their positions after striking the string, allowing it to vibrate. The hammers also let the player rapidly repeat the same note if desired. The strength in which the player pressed the key determined the volume of the sound.

It is difficult to determine what type of strings Cristofori used in his first pianos since they have been lost or destroyed. Over time, the strings in his later pianos have all been replaced due to breakages, wear and tear. Complaints about the Arpicembalo stated it was too “soft” and “dull” in comparison to the much louder harpsichords, suggesting Cristofori used thin strings. On the other hand, it was louder than a clavichord, which until that time had been the only keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance concerning the force in which the keys depressed.

Maffei’s article about Cristofori’s Arpicembalo was translated into German in 1725 by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. As a result, many instrument makers began to replicate Cristofori’s design. Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) went one step further, adding a damper-lifting mechanism, which allowed the strings to vibrate freely. This device, the forerunner of the sustain pedal, helped the player to produce a greater variety of tones.

Although instrument makers were quick to take on the new keyboard instrument, composers and musicians were harder to convince. In the early 1730s, Silberman introduced the Arpicembalo to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was less than impressed with the weak tones, which he claimed prevented the instrument from a full dynamic range. Unhappy at receiving criticism, Silberman made adjustments to the mechanisms until they met Bach’s approval in 1747. Advertising it as an “Instrument: piano et forte”, Bach acted as Silberman’s agent, encouraging musicians to adopt the fortepiano. These early instruments are so named to differentiate them from the modern pianoforte developed at the end of the 18th century.

Despite inventing a new instrument, Cristofori’s fame never spread much further than the Medici court. Prince Ferdinando passed away in 1713 at the age of 50, possibly from syphilis, leaving Cristofori without a patron. Fortunately, the prince’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723) appointed Cristofori the custodian of his son’s collection of instruments, thus allowing Cristofori to remain at court. The inventor continued to build pianos until his death on 27th January 1731, aged 75.

Only three pianos or Arpicembalos built by Cristofori exist today, although damages and refurbishments have altered them over time. A Latin inscription proves the authenticity of the instruments. “Bartholomaevs de Christophoris Patavinus Inventor Faciebat Florentiae” is followed by the date in Roman numerals, which translates as “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made this in Florence in [date].” 

The oldest of the three instruments was made in 1720 and currently lives in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The cypress and boxwood piano spans three octaves with strings in length from 4.75 inches to 74.25 inches. A new soundboard added in 1938 inadvertently altered the sound of the notes. Denzil Wraight (b.1951), a professional researcher of Italian keyboard instruments, laments that “its original condition … has been irretrievably lost.” Mary Elizabeth Adams (1842-1918), an American curator of musical instruments, donated the piano to the museum.

Although unplayable due to damage caused by worms, the 1722 instrument is the best preserved of the three pianos. The piano, which belongs to the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, has a range of four octaves and may have once belonged to the Venetian composer Alessandro Ignazio Marcello (1673-1747). The museum claims Cristofori aimed to “give an instrument the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with violent eruptions of passions.”

The third piano was built in 1726 and is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. The instrument is currently not playable, but old recordings exist, which give a general sense of how the notes once sounded. The use of cypress for the soundboard produced a warmer, softer sound than modern pianos.

The piano became more prevalent in the late 18th century after piano-making flourished in Vienna. Although piano-makers based their instruments on Cristofori’s designs, they made a few changes, including the colour of the keyboard: black for natural keys and white for the accidentals. Future piano-makers reverted to the original colours. The earliest surviving version of this type of piano, a fortepiano, was built in France by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781.

The modern piano began to evolve between 1790 and 1860, the “Mozart-era”. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was one of the first composers to write sonatas and concertos specifically for the instrument. Although he died in 1791, his work lived on, inspiring hundreds of other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). 

Beethoven and his tutor Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were among the first to own a pianoforte or grand piano. Broadwood and Sons, founded by the Scottish manufacturer John Broadwood (1732-1812), constructed these pianos, which were louder, more substantial and ranged over five octaves. They quickly gained a reputation for their instruments and added a sixth octave to the keyboard in 1810. A seventh octave had been added by 1820, and other piano manufacturers began to follow suit. 

London-born Robert Wornum (1780-1852), built the first upright piano in 1811, but his design did not catch on. Modern upright pianos developed from those made by Pleyel et Cie (Pleyel and Company), founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), in 1815. By 1834, Pleyel was producing 1000 pianos a year and was the preferred manufacturer of French composers such as Chopin, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

Piano-makers continued to improve the instrument throughout the 19th century. Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) added felt to the keys and hammers to improve the sound quality. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) designed a sostenuto pedal, which sustained only those notes held down when the pedal is depressed, meaning the following notes would not be affected. Not all piano manufacturers adopted this pedal, but the American company Steinway & Sons made it a key feature of their instruments. Steinway pianos tend to have three pedals, the other two being the sustain pedal, which sustains all the notes, and the soft pedal, which produces a duller sound.

Today, there are several types of pianos as a result of the various improvements made over the last two centuries. The grand piano is the closest in appearance to Cristofori’s design in which the strings horizontally extend away from the keyboard. Yet, within this category, there are three types of piano: baby grand, parlour grand and concert grand, each getting progressively bigger.

There are also categories of upright pianos. Console pianos are the shortest, whereas a studio piano is usually between 107 and 114 cm. Although these are both upright pianos, the term usually describes those that are taller than studio versions. Upright pianos tend to be cheaper than grand pianos, and their sound quality is not quite so impressive. It is unusual to see an upright piano in a concert hall, but they are commonplace in churches, schools and homes.

Less common are the specialised pianos developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include the toy piano for children, the player piano, which plays itself by reading perforated rolls of paper, and the pedal piano, which resembles an organ. With technological advances, the electric piano arrived in the 1920s, which used metal strings, although it did not sound much like an acoustic piano. The electronic piano of the 1970s was better suited to replicate the timbre of an upright piano and became popular with jazz musicians.

Digital pianos, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s, do not use strings or hammers. Instead, they are fitted with pre-recorded sounds and never need to be tuned. More recent versions have weighted keys and pedals to make them both feel and sound like an acoustic piano. In the 21st century, hybrid versions, which contain both acoustic and digital aspects, have appeared on the market.

It is doubtful Cristofori foresaw the potential of his Arpicembalo, yet it has become the great-great-grandfather of the most versatile instrument in the world. The pianoforte was an essential instrument in the classical era of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, as well as the romantic era of Chopin and Debussy. It was a favourite instrument of ragtime composers, which was succeeded by jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk and rock. 

Unlike orchestral instruments, the piano is polyphonic, meaning it can play more than one melody at the same time. As a result, it is the preferred instrument of composers, even if the final piece of music is for several musicians. The composer can, for example, play melodies and bass lines on the piano to ensure they complement each other.

After Cristofori died, his reputation went into decline; for some time, Gottfried Silbermann was believed to be the inventor of the piano. Careful studies of Cristofori’s instruments in the 20th century proved they predated Silbermann’s pianos. Since then, the credit for inventing the piano is solely with Cristofori, about whom the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written: “The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period … I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius [sic].” (Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a maker of string instruments.)

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco is arguably the inventor of the best musical instrument ever made. It is only right we remember his name and celebrate his achievements. To quote Grant O’Brien again, “We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. [sic]”

Hitting the Right Note

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Situated in North-West London, the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, is the oldest music school in the United Kingdom. With the aim to promote knowledge, taste, skill and new music to whoever wished to pursue it, Lord Burghersh, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), a composer, organised the establishment with the help of the harpist Nicolas Bochsa (1789-1856). Situated in Tenterden Street, Mayfair, the new academy was open to both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15 years who boarded at the school during term time. With William Crotch (1775-1847) as the first Principal, pupils were expected to focus on their music studies from 7am until 9pm.

Today, the Royal Academy of Music can be found in Marylebone Road, City of Westminster where it relocated in 1911. Right next door, a smaller building contains the Academy’s museum, with permanent and temporary galleries and exhibitions that explore unique instruments and the history of one of the leading UK conservatoires.

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Although known as the Royal Academy of Music, for the first eight years of its existence, the institution had not officially been recognised by the royal family. In 1830, just days before his death, King George IV (1762-1830) signed the Academy’s Royal Charter, and his successor, William IV (1765-1837) continued to support the school by establishing four King’s Scholarships.

The opportunities and cosmopolitan ethos of the Royal Academy attracted a growing number of students, including, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), who later became the school’s Principal, and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. To this day, famous names are emerging from the Academy and past students include the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (b.1955), Sir Elton John (b.1947) and Annie Lennox (b.1954).

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Franz List playing at the RA by Oswald Barrett

During the latter half of the 19th-century, the Royal Academy of Music began to struggle as rival institutions began to crop up in London: the Guildhall School (1880) and Royal College of Music (1882). Despite suffering a chronic financial crisis, Principal Bennett, whose conducting baton can be viewed in the museum, helped to turn the situation around. This was helped further by a visit from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) who received Honorary Membership of the Academy shortly before his death.

Due to the centenary of the emancipation of women in 2018, the Academy’s museum focused on the lives of female students, professors and musicians connected with the school in a temporary exhibition Hitting the Right Note: Amazing Women at the Royal Academy of Music, which ended on 18th April 2019. Although this exhibition concentrated more on the physical way these women have been portrayed, it contained an eye-opening history of the Academy from the point of view of women.

Music has always been enjoyed by both men and women alike, however, from ancient times to the 15th century, musicians tended to be slaves, servants or prostitutes, forced to entertain the rich in order to make a living. As a result of this, during the 17th and 18th centuries, respectable women would never be seen performing outside the home. Women were even banned from playing the organ in churches or singing with the choir. It was not until the 19th century that it was no longer deemed immoral for a woman to perform on stage. The number of female opera stars increased rapidly, eventually ousting male castrati.

Yet, when it came to playing instruments, women were expected to only play the piano in the privacy of their own homes. After the industrial revolution, however, the production of pianos increased meaning that “ordinary” working class people could also learn to play. Middle-class ladies, not wanting to be seen playing something “common”, began taking up other instruments instead, particularly the violin.

The Royal Academy of Music was slightly ahead of its time, admitting an equal amount of male and female students from the get-go. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the Academy began training older, professional musicians. The Academy was also the first establishment to admit women on orchestral instruments, beginning with Julia de Notte and Adria Moore on violins in 1872.

Earlier in 1844, the Royal Academy of Music had welcomed Kate Loder (1825-1904) as their first female professor of harmony. Born with perfect pitch, Kate won the King’s Scholarship at the age of 13 and had the opportunity in her final year at the Academy to play G Minor Concerto to its composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

At the age of 18, Kate became the first female professor at the Academy as well as the youngest female elected to the Philharmonic Society a year later. Unfortunately, her marriage to Henry Thompson (1820-1904) in 1851, put an end to her teaching career.

The exhibition included a number of women who had strong connections with the Royal Academy of Music. Two of these women have been honoured with busts, including one made by the American- British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). These were Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005).

Myra Hess enrolled at the Academy as a piano student when she was only 12 years old. By 17, she had given her public debut and become one of the most famous pianists in Britain. Her fame today, however, stems from her wartime contributions. During the Second World War, Hess proposed that live music should be performed in the empty National Gallery, whose treasures had been removed in order to avoid damage during the Blitz. Five days a week, classical lunchtime concerts were performed, providing music and food for the people of London. In total, 1698 concerts were performed, 146 of which Hess participated in herself.

Dame Moura Lympany, on the other hand, studied at the Academy much later than Hess. With a full scholarship, Lympany was a student from 1929 until 1934 after which she became a notable concert pianist. She was the first person to make a complete recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and, in 1940, she gave the British premiere of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D Flat.

Like Myra Hess, some of the other women who studied at the Academy had musical roles during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poston (1905-87) was one of the performers in the National Gallery concerts, however, her war legacy goes much further than that. In 1940, Poston joined the BBC Music Department and within three years had been promoted to European Music Supervisor. Part of her role involved sending coded musical messages to the Polish resistance on the continent. This code system was known as Jodaform, which had been devised by Czesław Halski, who became a student at the academy after the war. Well-known Polish tunes and folksongs were given different meanings and it was Poston’s job to play the correct piece of music to signify whether there was to be an air-drop in Poland or any other form of activity.

The exhibition displayed items belonging to a handful of the women who had passed through the Royal Academy of Music. On loan were Janet Craxton’s (1929-81) oboe reeds, many of which she collected from famous oboists. Craxton was an oboist herself, in fact, one of the leading players of her day. She was the only daughter of Harold Craxton OBE (1885-1971) who was a pianist and professor at the academy.

Also on loan were a snare drum, drum sticks and practice pad belonging to Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), the virtuoso Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, yet has taught herself to “hear” using other parts of her body. The snare drum was the first instrument Glennie owned. She has since gone on to amass one of the largest percussion collections in the world.

Hitting the Right Note mentioned many firsts for the Royal Academy of Music beginning with the first female violin students (1872) right up until the first female timpani student (1954) and saxophone student (1980). Surprisingly, the more major firsts have occurred more recently and go to show how difficult it has been for professional female musicians. A breakthrough transpired in the mid-20th century when Florence Hooton (1912-88) became the first cellist to play on national television. Yet there were still many milestones for female musicians to reach.

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949) became the first woman in history to conduct a complete concert at the BBC Proms. Born in Cuba, Martinez studied in New Orleans until she earned a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Academy. Her secret dream was to conduct, however, women were rarely given the opportunity. Nonetheless, her determination saw her achieve her goal.

The violinist Clio Gould (b.1968) reached another milestone for women when she became the first woman to lead a symphony orchestra in London. Shockingly, this feat did not occur until 2002 when she played with the Royal Philharmonic. Gould has since performed with a number of other orchestras but specialises in contemporary solo repertoire. She is currently a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum has two floors devoted to the history of string instruments and the piano. The Academy owns some 250 string instruments of which only a handful are on display to the public. Amongst the collection is a Renaissance lute, a Parisian five-course guitar, and a British-made piccolo violin. With instruments from various eras and countries, the String Gallery helps visitors to understand the development and styles of music over time.

One of the first instruments visitors see on entering the String Gallery is Kai-Thomas Roth’s three-stringed double bass which he made using maple wood in 2006. Despite being a fairly new instrument, it is based on the baroque three-stringed bass, which itself was based on a double-bass produced by Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750) in 1747. Montagnana was working in Venice at the same time as the violin virtuoso and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), therefore, it is likely Vivaldi or members of his orchestra had instruments made by him.

Intriguingly titled an English guitar, the convex lute-like instrument with six pairs of strings belongs to the cittern family, a Rennaisance term for wire-strung instruments plucked by a plectrum. This is one of the surviving pieces from John Preston’s (active 1724-98) workshop and was produced around the time that guitars were becoming popular. Interestingly, this style of guitar was most popular with females who considered it to be elegant and easy to play.

One of the most beautiful instruments in the Strings Gallery is the 19th-century lacquered green Irish harp. Decorated with shamrocks and a gilded winged female bust representing the figure of Hibernia, this harp was made by John Egan, an Irish “Maker by Special Appointment to His Most Gracious Majesty George IV”. Tuned in E-flat major, this harp is extremely rare, being one of only two known surviving harps in the style.

“Violins are the lively, forward, importunate wits, that distinguish themselves by flourishes of imagination, sharpness of repartee, glances of satire and bear away the upper part in every consort.”
– Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710

The String Gallery could not be complete without the instruments that make up the majority of professional orchestras: violins. These, of course, are not just any string instrument, they have been made by some of the most famous violin makers to have existed. Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) created some of the most wanted stringed instruments, which are now part of grand collections, for instance, this one, rather than being played.

The Nicolo Amati violin of 1662 is a well-preserved example of his largest and most favoured instrument. Known as the “Grand Amati”, this violin demonstrates Amati’s greatest achievement. With exemplary purfling (ornamental border), broad black strips of ebony have been inlaid around the edge of the instrument to reinforce the delicate curves of the outline. There are still traces of honey-brown varnish on parts of the maple wood body.

The 1709 ‘Viotti ex-Bruce‘ violin by Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-preserved examples of his workmanship to have survived. It was produced during his “golden period” when Stradivari was at the height of his powers. The dramatically figured maple wood was covered with a deep red varnish, the majority of which remains on the body due to preservation. The violin has been named after Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who once played for Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93). Viotti was a fan of Stradivari’s instruments, however, his collection had to be sold to settle his exorbitant debts. The last owners were the Bruce family, hence Viotti ex-Bruce, before it was acquired by HM Government.

Also on display is another of Stradivari’s instruments, the “Archinto” viola of 1696. During his long and productive career, Stradivari did not produce a large number of violas and, today, only ten survive. The slender corners and purfling evidence the influence Amati had on his pupil, however, there are some elements that are unique to the maker. Stradivari fashioned his violas with cello-like peg boxes and is varnished in such a way that the instrument appears to change colour when viewed from different directions.

“A man of brains is like a virtuoso who can give a concert all by himself. Or he is like a piano which is in itself a small orchestra.”
– Schopenhauer, Maxims, 1851

The Piano Gallery shows the evolution of keyboard instruments from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. The gallery contains several instruments from the piano, harpsichord and virginal families that are kept in playing condition, however, visitors are not permitted to touch the keys. Gallery assistants, however, are more than happy to give a demonstration of the different sounds and explain how the instruments changed over the years.

Unlike the piano, which is believed to have been first created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 18th century, whose complex mechanism involves hammers, which strike the strings to provide dynamic notes, virginals and harpsichords create sound by plucking strings with a plectrum. A couple of models demonstrate these differences.

Typically, the instrument visitors are drawn to first is the “Model A” Grand Piano produced by Steinway and Sons. Made in 1920, the Steinway is almost 100 years old, yet it is still regarded as a “modern” piano. Steinway has become synonymous with pianos of this calibre and is usually the most sought-after in the world. The company was established in New York in the 1850s by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway (1797-1871). Along with his sons, Theodore (1825-89) and William (1835-96), Steinway’s unique pianos were produced from one piece of wood, which supposedly enhances the sound of the notes. Also, Steinway ensured that little energy is lost through the vibration of the strings, therefore maximising the generation of the sound.

If approaching the instruments in chronological order, the first is a polygonal virginal or spinetta made in Italy some time between 1600 and 1650. A virginal is a type of small harpsichord and is the earliest string keyboard instrument to survive. They are dated back as far as the 16th century, evidenced by their presence in paintings from that time. Virginals were built without stands, implying they could be moved from place to place for performances.

Although the newest instrument in the room, Arnold Dolmetsch’s (1858-1940) clavichord is a copy of a much older instrument from the 17th or 18th century. Dolmetsch built copies of almost every kind of instrument from the 15th century onwards, which has helped musicians and historians to understand those that are now lost. Whereas a harpsichord uses a bird’s quill to pluck the strings, a clavichord produces sound by striking the brass or iron strings with a metal blade known as a tangent. The vibrations caused by this produce the sounds, however, they are not very loud. It is thought clavichords were primarily used for practice rather than performance.

“The harpsichord has its own peculiar qualities … precision, clearness, brilliance; and compass.”
Francois Couperin, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, 1716

Virginals and clavichords were more suitable for domestic settings, as were most harpsichords. A fine example is a harpsichord produced by Jacob Kirkman (1710-92) in 1764, which would have been familiar to the likes of Handel (1685-1759). Although a harpsichord may have a pure brilliance of sound, the dynamics are less modifiable in comparison to a piano and, therefore, not so good for public performances.

The Gallery has a number of grand pianos that progress through the years, revealing how the design and mechanisms were gradually improved. As the pianos became more modern, pianists were able to mesmerise their audiences with their playing, just as Franz Liszt did during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music.

Music was no longer limited to royal courts, churches and domestic settings, instead, people could listen – for a fee – in concert and recital halls. Pianos became physically large to emphasise their importance within orchestras and solo performances. Whilst older pianos were produced almost entirely from wood, piano makers began to use metal tubes or bars to increase the potential sound of the strings.

For some visitors, the temptation to try these instruments for themselves may be great, so they are relieved to know that they can play a particular, upright piano in the String Gallery. There are also a couple of ukeleles for the curious to try.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is the ideal place to visit for anyone with an interest in music. Not only is it fascinating to look at all the precious instruments, but the history of the Academy is also worthwhile reading about. Throughout the year, the museum holds various exhibitions, however, they are all free to enter. Whilst there, why not check out the music shop at the front of the building, which contains a huge number of sheet music amongst other things.

Many of the collections displayed are Designated and the Museum itself is Accredited, chartermarks of quality awarded and administered by Arts Council England (ACE). The Museum opened in 2001, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.